He lied about his age to get into the Army, exaggerated the magnitude of the lie later, and lived a troubled life when the fighting was over. He was a soft-spoken Texas farm boy named Audie Murphy and he was one of the most decorated soldiers in American history.
During World War II, Murphy rose from private to first lieutenant and received the Medal of Honor. He enjoyed a brief postwar career as a Hollywood actor and portrayed himself in a celluloid version of his combat experiences.
Born near Kingston, Texas on June 20, 1925 – the date later became the focus of a controversy surrounding him – Murphy enlisted in the Army days after his seventeenth birthday and just a few months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war. Murphy fought in North Africa and Sicily, and in the Allied amphibious landings at Anzio, Italy and later southern France.
The pivotal moment that transformed Audie Murphy into legend came on Jan. 26, 1945, near Holtzwihr, France, where he commanded Company B, 15th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division.
A man of what biographer Stan Smith called “ordinary appearance” of slight stature with a fragile expression, Murphy had to suffer being called “Baby Face” while in basic training at Camp Wolters, Texas. Yet he emerged as a combat leader and rose to the rank of staff sergeant. When the war moved to France, Murphy won a battlefield commission. He was a company commander and second lieutenant officially listed as 20 years old but actually 19.
A ‘Furious Battle’
The pivotal moment that transformed Audie Murphy into legend came on Jan. 26, 1945, near Holtzwihr, France, where he commanded Company B, 15th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division. Murphy’s company came under attack by German tanks and infantry. It became “a furious battle,” an Army press release later said.
The lieutenant ordered his men to withdraw to prepared positions in a wooded area while he remained forward at his command post and called in artillery fire by field telephone. Murphy later said he called down friendly artillery fire on his own position: “They were that close.”
Behind Murphy and to his right, an M10 Hellcat tank destroyer was hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. Murphy continued to direct artillery fire, bringing exploding shells raining down on advancing German troops. As enemy tanks began to flank him, Murphy climbed atop the burning tank destroyer.
The vehicle was in danger of blowing up at any moment. Murphy scrambled to the open gun position on top. He turned the tank destroyer’s Browning M2 .50-caliber machine gun against German troops at pointblank range.
Murphy was alone. He was exposed to German fire from three sides. His own bursts of machine gun fire killed dozens of Germans and caused the attack to falter. The German tanks, suddenly bereft of infantry support, began to fall back.
For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate Murphy. He held his position and wiped out a squad that was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards, only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound, but ignored it and continued the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack that forced the Germans to withdraw. Some accounts credit Murphy with killing no fewer than 241 enemy soldiers.
When Lt. Gen. Alexander M. Patch, commander of the Seventh Army, draped the Medal of Honor around Murphy’s neck at a ceremony in Austria on June 2, 1945, a reporter wrote that Murphy was “too young to grow a mustache.”
Highly Decorated Soldier
The Medal of Honor was one of Murphy’s 33 awards and decorations. Murphy was wounded three times and fought in nine campaigns, and his photo appeared on the cover of the July 16, 1945 Life magazine. He left the Army at war’s end in September 1945.
Film actor James Cagney spotted the photo and invited Murphy to Hollywood. The war hero became a struggling actor, initially with small roles and little income. He received his first starring role in 1949. Eventually, he appeared in 44 feature films, including 23 westerns. In 1949, Murphy published his autobiography, To Hell and Back. It has remained in print almost continuously ever since.
Murphy portrayed himself in the 1955 film version of To Hell and Back. In addition to acting, he had some success as a poet and songwriter. There were high and low points in Murphy’s film career, exacerbated by his problems with insomnia and depression. Before the term “post-traumatic stress syndrome” entered the American lexicon, Murphy was a champion of American military veterans, including those with mental illnesses.
Audie Murphy lost his life in the crash of a private aircraft near Roanoke, Va., in 1971.
For many years, Murphy apparently wanted to have it both ways, telling supporters that he had enlisted at age 16 while having on his official record a false birth date (June 20, 1924) that would have made him 18. He would have needed to be 18 to enlist on his own so he did lie about his age – but not as much as he later encouraged people to believe.
Murphy is interred at Arlington National Cemetery.